A History of Music


The Baroque Period - 1600 to 1750

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Baroque music is a style of Western art music composed from approximately 1600 to 1750. This era followed the Renaissance, and was followed in turn by the Classical era. The word "baroque" comes from the Portuguese word barroco, meaning misshapen pearl, a negative description of the ornate and heavily ornamented music of this period. Later, the name came to apply also to the architecture of the same period.

Baroque music forms a major portion of the "classical music" canon, being widely studied, performed, and listened to. Composers of the Baroque era include Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel, Alessandro Scarlatti, Domenico Scarlatti, Antonio Vivaldi, Henry Purcell, Georg Philipp Telemann, Jean-Baptiste Lully, Arcangelo Corelli, Tomaso Albinoni, François Couperin, Denis Gaultier, Claudio Monteverdi, Heinrich Schütz, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Jan Dismas Zelenka, and Johann Pachelbel.

The Baroque period saw the creation of tonality. During the period, composers and performers used more elaborate musical ornamentation, made changes in musical notation, and developed new instrumental playing techniques. Baroque music expanded the size, range, and complexity of instrumental performance, and also established opera, cantata, oratorio, concerto, and sonata as musical genres. Many musical terms and concepts from this era are still in use today.

Main characteristics of Baroque Period Music

  • Most baroque music has an easily recognizable strong, steady pulse, and continuity of rhythm.
  • Patterns of rhythmic sequences permeate much of Baroque music. Rapid changes in harmony often makes the pieces feel more rhythmic.
  • Dance rhythms were frequently used in multi-movement form pieces including dotted rhythms
  • Firm establishment of a variety of musical forms including Concerto, Sonata, Orotorio, Concerto Grosso, Contata and Opera.
  • The harpsichord became the backbone of most ensembles and in conjunction with the celli or occasionally double bass, formed what was known as the continuo. (An accompanying part that supported the melodic lines by providing harmony and rhythm). Flutes, oboes, trumpets (without valves), and timpani all became established members of what would eventually develop into the symphony orchestra we recognise today.

A Taste of The Baroque

Bach, Brandenberg Concerto #3, Allegro

The Classical Period - 1750 to 1820

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The dates of the Classical period in Western music are generally accepted as being between about 1750 and 1820. However, the term classical music is used in a colloquial sense as a synonym for Western art music, which describes a variety of Western musical styles from the ninth century to the present, and especially from the sixteenth or seventeenth to the nineteenth. This article is about the specific period from 1730 to 1820.

The Classical period falls between the Baroque and the Romantic periods. The best-known composers from this period are Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Franz Schubert; other notable names include Luigi Boccherini, Muzio Clementi, Antonio Soler, Antonio Salieri, François Joseph Gossec, Johann Stamitz, Carl Friedrich Abel, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, and Christoph Willibald Gluck. Ludwig van Beethoven is also regarded either as a Romantic composer or a composer who was part of the transition to the Romantic.

Franz Schubert is also something of a transitional figure, as are Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Mauro Giuliani, Friedrich Kuhlau, Fernando Sor, Luigi Cherubini, Jan Ladislav Dussek, and Carl Maria von Weber. The period is sometimes referred to as the era of Viennese Classic or Classicism (German: Wiener Klassik), since Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Joseph Haydn, Antonio Salieri, and Ludwig van Beethoven all worked at some time in Vienna, and Franz Schubert was born there.

Characteristics of the Classical Music Period

  • Simplicity: Compared to the Baroque period music that preceded it, Classical period music places greater emphasis on simplicity, tonal harmony, single-line melodies, and enlarged ensembles
  • Increased accessibility: During the Classical period, many composers still worked in the courts of aristocrats, but public concerts were commonplace throughout Europe, which allowed the music to be available to a much wider variety of people, especially members of the middle classes.
  • Contrasts of Mood, Rhythm, and Texture of the music -- more flexibility and surprise changes in tempo and dynamics.
  • Development of the Symphonic Form of usually four movements -- 1. a fast movement and stating of the primary Theme -- 2. a slow movement (adagio) -- 3. a Dance movement (rando or minuet) -- 4. a concluding fast movement and restating of the main theme with variations.
  • Increased size of the Orchestra along with a wider variety of instruments.

A Taste of the Classical

Schubert Sym. #9 -- The Great C Major -- 4th Movement Allegro

The Romantic Period - 1780 to 1910


If there is an overriding giant of the Romantic Period in music, it would have to be Ludwig Von Beethoven. A bridge between The Classical Period in his 1st and 2nd Symphonies, he continued with his 3rd, (the Eroica), and the 4th, 5th, and 6th, (the Pastorale), symphonies. It is in his 7th, 8th and, in particular the glorious 9th, (the Chorale), that his position as the supreme Romantic composer, is assurred.

A Taste of The Romantic

Beethoven's 7th Symphony, 2nd Movement Allegretto

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Characteristics of the Romanic Period

  • Freedom of form and design. It was more personal and emotional.
  • Song-like melodies (lyrical), as well as many chromatic harmonies and discords along with dramatic contrasts of dynamics and pitch.
  • Big orchestras, due mainly to brass and the invention of the valve and use of a wider variety of instruments including English Horn, Bass Clarinet and Contrabassoon and an expanded Percussion section.
  • Wider variety of orchestral and operatic pieces.
  • A new preoccupation with and surrender to Nature
  • A fascination with the past, particularly the Middle Ages and legends of medieval chivalry
  • A turn towards the mystic and supernatural, both religious and merely spooky
  • A longing for the infinite mysterious connotations of remoteness, the unusual and fabulous, the strange and surprising
  • A focus on the nocturnal, the ghostly, the frightful, and terrifyin fantastic seeing and spiritual experiences
  • A new attention given to national identity, emphasis on extreme subjectivism and interest in the autobiographical discontent with musical formulas and conventions

Romantic music is a term denoting an era of Western classical music that began in the late 18th or early 19th century. It was related to Romanticism, the European artistic and literary movement that arose in the second half of the 18th century, and Romantic music in particular dominated the Romantic movement in Germany. One of the first significant applications of the term to music was in 1789, in the Mémoires by the Frenchman André Grétry, but it was E.T.A. Hoffmann who really established the principles of musical romanticism, in a lengthy review of Ludwig van Beethoven's Fifth Symphony published in 1810, and in an 1813 article on Beethoven's instrumental music. In the first of these essays Hoffmann traced the beginnings of musical Romanticism to the later works of Haydn and Mozart. It was Hoffmann's fusion of ideas already associated with the term "Romantic", used in opposition to the restraint and formality of Classical models, that elevated music, and especially instrumental music, to a position of pre-eminence in Romanticism as the art most suited to the expression of emotions. It was also through the writings of Hoffmann and other German authors that brought German music to the centre of musical Romanticism (Samson 2001).

Many other composers were active during the Romantic Period including, but not limited to: Late Beethovan, Late Schubert, Wagner, Dvorak, Chopin, Grieg, Ravel, Rossini, Saint Saens, Suppe, Holst, Berlioz, Bizet, de Falla, Dukas, Elgar, Franck, Gliere, Gounod, Leoncavallo, Mascogni, Offenbach, Puccini, Rosas, Scrjabin, Smetina, von Weber, and Sullivan.

The Impressionist (Modern) Period - 1890 to 1930

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Richard Strauss in 1888, the year of Don Juan, symbolizes the élan vital and "breakaway mood" of modernism.

In music, modernism is a philosophical and aesthetic stance underlying the period of change and development in musical language that occurred around the turn of the 20th century, a period of diverse reactions in challenging and reinterpreting older categories of music, innovations that lead to new ways of organizing and approaching harmonic, melodic, sonic, and rhythmic aspects of music, and changes in aesthetic worldviews in close relation to the larger identifiable period of modernism in the arts of the time. Examples include the celebration of Arnold Schoenberg's rejection of tonality in chromatic post-tonal and twelve-tone works and Igor Stravinsky's move away from metrical rhythm.

Characteristics of the Modern (Impressionistic) Period

  • Elements often termed impressionistic include static harmony, emphasis on instrumental timbres that creates a shimmering interplay of “colours”.
  • Melodies that lack directed motion and surface ornamentation that obscures or substitutes for melody.
  • An avoidance of traditional musical form.

A Taste of the "Modern"

Debussy -- La Mer (the Sea)

The 20th Century Period - 1901 to 2000

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A Taste of Ives

Charles Ives, The Fourth of July

20th-century classical music was without a dominant style and highly diverse.

At the turn of the century, music was characteristically late Romantic in style. Composers such as Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss and Jean Sibelius were pushing the bounds of Post-Romantic Symphonic writing. At the same time, the Impressionist movement, spearheaded by Claude Debussy, was being developed in France. The term was actually loathed by Debussy: "I am trying to do 'something different—in a way realities—what the imbeciles call 'impressionism' is a term which is as poorly used as possible, particularly by art critics" (Politoske and Martin 1988, 419)—and Maurice Ravel's music, also often labelled with this term, explores music in many styles not always related to it.

After the First World War, many composers started returning to the past for inspiration and wrote works that draw elements (form, harmony, melody, structure) from it. This type of music thus became labelled neoclassicism. Igor Stravinsky (Pulcinella and Symphony of Psalms), Sergei Prokofiev (Classical Symphony), Ravel (Le tombeau de Couperin) and Paul Hindemith (Symphony: Mathis der Maler) all produced neoclassical works.

In the 1940s and 50s composers, notably Pierre Schaeffer, started to explore the application of technology to music in musique concrète (Dack 2002). The term Electroacoustic music was later coined to include all forms of music involving magnetic tape, computers, synthesizers, multimedia, and other electronic devices and techniques. Live electronic music uses live electronic sounds within a performance (as opposed to preprocessed sounds that are overdubbed during a performance), Cage's Cartridge Music being an early example. Spectral music (Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail) is a further development of electroacoustic music that uses analyses of sound spectra to create music (Dufourt 1981; Dufourt 1991). Cage, Berio, Boulez, Milton Babbitt, Luigi Nono and Edgard Varèse all wrote electroacoustic music.

Important cultural trends often informed music of this period, romantic, modernist, neoclassical, postmodernist or otherwise. Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev were particularly drawn to primitivism in their early careers, as explored in works such as The Rite of Spring and Chout. Other Russians, notably Dmitri Shostakovich, reflected the social impact of communism and subsequently had to work within the strictures of socialist realism in their music. Other composers, such as Benjamin Britten (War Requiem), explored political themes in their works, albeit entirely at their own volition. Nationalism was also an important means of expression in the early part of the century. The culture of the United States of America, especially, began informing an American vernacular style of classical music, notably in the works of Charles Ives, John Alden Carpenter, and (later) George Gershwin. Folk music (Vaughan Williams' Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus, Gustav Holst's A Somerset Rhapsody) and Jazz (Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Darius Milhaud's La création du monde) were also influential.

Characteristics of the 20th Century Music Period

  • Orchestras. Orchestras still continued to be the most popular choice for 20th-century composers to display their work.
  • Serialism. One of the greatest musical developments was the dissolving of tonality and the dismissal of the system of keys for serialism.
  • Minimalism. Minimalism has made its way into our lives in many ways during the 20th century, including in the musical field. This form of music takes incredibly complex music and breaks it down into simple patterns and textures that interweave in new and complex ways.
  • Worldwide Inspiration. While some composers have focused on musical styles and influences, other composers chose to take inspiration from their home countries around the world.

A Taste of the "Modern"

Gustav Holst, The Planets -- Mars, The Bringer of War -- in 5/4 throughout, Conducted by Susanna Malkke

The Contemporary Period - 1975 to Present

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Contemporary classical music can be understood as belonging to the period that started in the mid-1970s to early 1990s, which includes modernist, postmodern, neoromantic, and pluralist music. However, the term may also be employed in a broader sense to refer to all post-1945 musical forms.

Generally "contemporary classical music" amounts to: The modern forms of art music The post-1945 modern forms of post-tonal music after the death of Anton Webern (including serial music, electroacoustic music, musique concrète, experimental music, atonal music, minimalist music, etc.) The post-1975 forms of this music (including post-modern music, Spectral music, post-minimalism, sound art, etc.)

At the beginning of the 20th century, composers of classical music were experimenting with an increasingly dissonant pitch language, which sometimes yielded atonal pieces. Following World War I, as a backlash against what they saw as the increasingly exaggerated gestures and formlessness of late Romanticism, certain composers adopted a neoclassic style, which sought to recapture the balanced forms and clearly perceptible thematic processes of earlier styles (see also New Objectivity and Social Realism). After World War II, modernist composers sought to achieve greater levels of control in their composition process (e.g., through the use of the twelve tone technique and later total serialism).


To some extent, European and the US traditions diverged after World War II. Among the most influential composers in Europe were Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono, and Karlheinz Stockhausen. The first and last were both pupils of Olivier Messiaen. An important aesthetic philosophy as well as a group of compositional techniques at this time was serialism (also called "through-ordered music", "'total' music" or "total tone ordering"), which took as its starting point the compositions of Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern (but was opposed to traditional twelve-tone music), and was also closely related to Le Corbusier's idea of the modulor. However, some more traditionally based composers such as Dmitri Shostakovich and Benjamin Britten maintained a tonal style of composition despite the prominent serialist movement.

In America, composers like Milton Babbitt, John Cage, Elliott Carter, Henry Cowell, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, George Rochberg, and Roger Sessions, formed their own ideas. Some of these composers (Cage, Cowell, Glass, Reich) represented a new methodology of experimental music, which began to question fundamental notions of music such as notation, performance, duration, and repetition, while others (Babbitt, Rochberg, Sessions) fashioned their own extensions of the twelve-tone serialism of Schoenberg

Characteristics of Contemporary Classical music

  • A defining feature of modern music is the breaking-down of all traditional aesthetic conventions, thereby unleashing complete freedom in all aesthetic dimensions, including melody, rhythm, and chord progression.
  • The use of dissonant harmonies and uncommon and/or complex rhythms.
  • More use of brass and percussion instruments and electronically created and synthetic sounds.

A Taste of The Contemporary

Schoenberg, Five Orchestral Pieces


Song to the Moon -- Joshua Bell


Omphales Spinning Wheel -- Saint-Saens

Remember the Shadow on Old Radio? This was the Theme. Beginning at time 2:56.


Overture to Donna Diana -- Emil Nikolaus von Reznicek

Remember Old Radio? This was the Theme for Sgt. Preston of the Yukon.









Shostacovich Sym. #5 -- Finale


Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun -- Debussy


BBC The Great Composers -- Puccini


BBC The Great Composers -- Beethoven

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BBC The Great Composers -- Bach

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BBC The Great Composers -- Bach

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BBC The Great Composers -- Bach

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BBC The Great Composers -- Bach

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BBC The Great Composers -- Bach

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BBC The Great Composers -- Bach

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BBC The Great Composers -- Bach


BBC The Great Composers -- Tchaikovski


BBC The Great Composers -- Wagner


BBC The Great Composers -- Mahler


BBC The Great Composers -- Mozart